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History in Report Cards

In 1996, Paul Lukas found hundreds of report cards dating back from 1910 to the 1930’s. These interesting cards contained personal data and comments from teachers at Manhattan Trade School for Girls, a vocational institution. The cards turned out to be a treasure trove of the girls’ stories that allows us a glimpse of life back in the day.

image © Paul Lukas via Slate

Paul Lukas accidentally found old report cards in a drawer while attending an event at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan. What surprised him was that the report cards didn’t belong to students from the high school. Instead, they were report cards of girls who attended a trade school back in the early 1900s. Because of his fascination with the cards, he decided to take them home since they were going to be thrown out anyway.

Fast forward 13 years later, Paul Lukas felt the need to do something about the report cards. Here is a breakdown of what the report cards were about and what he learned from reading them.

• He has 395 records of the students who attended the Manhattan Trade School for Girls.
• The girls who attended the school were about 14 to 15 years when they entered and about 17 when they left the school.
• Manhattan Trade School for Girls offered 1 and 2-year courses for ‘needle trades’ such as millinery, sewing, dressmaking, glue trades and brush trades. The curriculum also included home economics, life skills and personal management skills.
• All of the students were female and came from surrounding neighborhoods in New York City, plus some from Connecticut and New Jersey.
• Of all the students, only a few were African American and one Hispanic.

These were some of the things that Paul Lukas was able to discover when he read the piles of report cards that he found. Comments and evaluations written on the report cards were interesting. See some examples below:

The oldest of the report cards only had handwritten comments but those that were dated 1926 onwards had pictures on them. Although the pictures are small, you can make out the faces and expressions of these unknown girls. Here are a few of them:

The girls who studied there were not able to receive their diplomas until they showed expertise in the trade that they were studying. After finishing their vocational studies, the girls were still subjected to employee reports so these cards weren’t merely school records, they also show what the lives of the girls were like after finishing school.

It’s fascinating how we can learn so much from a bunch of cards and photos of people from the past. This just goes to show how a picture or a piece of card can tell a story, in this case, the history of the girls who went to the Manhattan Trade School for Girls .

For more on Paul Lukas and the report cards, visit Permanent Record : A Trove Of 1920s Report Cards and the Stories They Tell.

written by jeanmendoza

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